Politics & Policy

The Traitors Who Join ISIS

Adam Gadahn (left) and Ottawa gunman Michael Zehaf-Bibeau
Western nations have fought shy of enforcing their treason laws. They shouldn’t.

Nathan Cirillo and Michael Zehaf-Bibeau

As I noted yesterday, the moral contrast between these two men — the Ottawa terrorist and the guard he shot — couldn’t be more stark. Cirillo gave his life in the service of country and honor. Zehaf-Bibeau gave his life in the service of tyranny and murder.

All those who have died serving Australia, Canada, the U.K., and the U.S. have made a great sacrifice for those respective democracies. Most Westerners honor them with gratitude. Tragically, however, some Westerners are betraying that honor by joining the Islamic State’s global movement.

This societal struggle — against a very small minority of extremists — speaks to a profound philosophical divide. 

While the Islamic State claims to represent a new, just, and holy order, its hyper-Salafi jihadist ideology is antithetical to democracy. Where we stand for individual freedom, they stand for totalitarianism. Where we stand for the rule of law, they stand for the tyranny of one psychotic man.

Yet hundreds of Britons, around 100 Canadians, 50 Australians, and 15 Americans are now known to serve the Islamic State. The terror is spreading, and not just in Canada. As events in Australia and Britain attest, Islamic State terrorists in the Mideast and elsewhere are inspiring terrorism from their supporters in the West. Persuading them that serving the Islamic State doesn’t require travel to Syria or Iraq, ISIS offers ordained purpose to those Westerners who detest their democratic society. In basic terms, it turns hateful minds toward violent terrorism. And because of the detection challenge that homegrown terrorists pose for intelligence services, they represent an urgent threat to Western nations’ security. That threat must be met head-on. Treason charges offer one answer.

Of course, it is not a simple answer. While the U.K. is considering treason charges against citizens who join the Islamic State, there is no recent precedent there. The last man convicted of treason in Britain was a Nazi propagandist, Lord Haw-Haw, way back in 1946. Public reaction to new treason trials would obviously be complicated.

However, treason charges here in the United States remain an important legal remedy. Consider Adam Gadahn. Gadahn, a U.S. citizen who joined al-Qaeda in the late 1990s, was charged with treason in 2006. Federal law explains that “Whoever, owing allegiance to the United States, levies war against them or adheres to their enemies, giving them aid and comfort within the United States or elsewhere, is guilty of treason and shall suffer death [or imprisonment] . . . ” This legal clarity is important. Noting a citizen’s “owing” of allegiance, the actus reus (evil action) of “levies war” or “giving aid and comfort” to the enemy, U.S. treason law is well suited to the West’s present homegrown-terrorist threat. Other nations should follow this example.

Still, this isn’t just about legal remedies. Treason charges also offer a critical political response to this threat.

While some claim that treason laws are authoritarian relics (some, absurdly, argue that treason trials are equivalent to Islamist beheadings), the Islamic State’s hyper-violent ideology won’t be defeated by half-measures. Western countries must clarify that their passports are more than individual documents of travel. They must affirm that passports carry responsibility. At present, the Islamic State (and al-Qaeda) believe that the West is vulnerable to internal destruction by its own citizens. Perpetuating this myth, the terrorists are successfully persuading young men (and some women) to a life that seems to “mean something more.” These terrorists highlight their international membership to inspire a war that reaches beyond border checkpoints. As evidenced in Canada, the U.K. and Australia, the effort is succeeding.

Treason trials would help us to grapple with this trend. Re-drawing a line of citizen responsibility, we would demonstrate our intolerance for national betrayal and our commitment to American national sovereignty. We would puncture the easy empowerment that the Islamic State is seen to provide. 

Even then, this isn’t just about law and politics. It’s also about honor. 

Last week, I visited the graves of two U.S. Army soldiers, Alex Jimenez and Byron Fouty, at Arlington National Cemetery. While serving in Iraq in 2007, these men were captured by the Islamic State’s predecessor, al-Qaeda in Iraq. Brutally tortured for months, they were then murdered and dumped in a shallow grave. As with Nathan Cirillo, Patrice Vincent, and Lee Rigby, their national service ended in the struggle against a brutal ideology. Honoring them, we must render justice upon their Western opposites: those traitors who support the Islamic State’s cause of death.

 Tom Rogan is a columnist for the Daily Telegraph and a contributor to The McLaughlin Group. He holds the Tony Blankley Chair at the Steamboat Institute, is based in Washington, D.C., and tweets @TomRtweets.

Tom Rogan is a columnist for National Review Online, a contributor to the Washington Examiner, and a former panelist on The McLaughlin Group. Email him at TRogan@McLaughlin.com

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